Belmont Club

The Atom in Pakistan

The NYT looks at Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal. “New American intelligence assessments have concluded that Pakistan has steadily expanded its nuclear arsenal since President Obama came to office, and that it is building the capability to surge ahead in the production of nuclear-weapons material, putting it on a path to overtake Britain as the world’s fifth largest nuclear weapons power.”

The Washington Post says Pakistan has practically doubled its weapons holdings in the last several years.  The Post noted the buildup has posed a dilemma for President Obama. While it is increasing tensions with India on the subcontinent, criticism from the White House must be tempered by the fact that the U.S. needs Pakistan to carry out the president’s Afghanistan strategy. So the president is once again taking a measured tone.

The NYT reported that Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said President Obama remained “confident” about the security of Pakistani weapons, and said he “continues to encourage all nations to support the commencement of negotiations on the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty.”  But his words of wisdom are apparently falling on stony ground as Pakistan continues to build. There has been concern about the security of Pakistan’s arsenal in a part of the world where al-Qaeda has many supporters. The Times reports that the administration has given Pakistan a great deal of money to build barriers around the warhead storage, and does not fear its capture by main force. However, theft from insiders of fissile material remains a concern:

In State Department cables released by WikiLeaks late last year, Anne Patterson, then the American ambassador to Pakistan, wrote of concerns that nuclear material in Pakistan’s laboratories was vulnerable to slow theft from insiders. The cables also revealed an American effort to deny its ally technology that it could use to upgrade its arsenal to plutonium weapons.

Yet the arms program has continued to forge ahead in a way that has baffled officials who have wondered how Pakistan can continue funding the fissile material production given that the impoverished country had no obvious way to afford it:

Almost all, however, said their real concern was not the weapons, but the increase in the production of material, especially plutonium. …

Still, it is unclear how Pakistan is financing the new weapons production, at a time of extraordinary financial stress in the country. “What does Pakistan need with that many nuclear weapons, especially given the state of the country’s economy?” said one foreign official who is familiar with the country’s plans, but agreed to discuss the classified program if granted anonymity.

Pakistani News.Net, for example, claims that the country’s economy is “collapsing” and the government is now in the position where it has to borrow money from foreign banks to service its external debt.  Rising oil prices are plunging the population, nearly 40% of which is already in “absolute poverty,” into the depths of despair:

According to the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for Peace “fewer than three million of Pakistan’s 175 million citizens pay any income taxes, and the country’s tax-to-GDP ratio is only nine percent.”

How such a country can overtake Britain in nuclear weapons is nothing short of marvelous. Where is the money coming from? One possible mystery benefactor is China. The Post notes that “China, which sees India as a major regional competitor, has major investments in Pakistan and a commitment to supply it with at least two nuclear-energy reactors.” Russia is another possibility. But the official finger has yet to be pointed. “In December 2008, Peter Lavoie, the U.S. national intelligence officer for South Asia, told NATO officials that ‘despite pending economic catastrophe, Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world,’ according to a classified State Department cable released late last year by the Internet site WikiLeaks.” Wherever it is getting the money, Pakistan boasted that it had more weapons than anybody thought and expressed a determination to forge ahead because its greatly expanded arsenal is barely adequate for its needs.

It is an ironic situation for a president who promised to help rid the world of the Bomb — a potentially crazy situation where a mystery benefactor funds weapons which America pays to have guarded — to be used someday against some unspecified foe. With Pakistan, Iran and North Korea building A-bombs, are we really on the way to a World Without Nuclear weapons? Perhaps the diplomatic efforts we see have as object some deep game. Or maybe it’s just the speechwriters way of making muddling through look like a plan, until the world wakes up one day, relieved that it didn’t have to take the risks because it’s already too late. And nobody’s fault really. How did the movie lines go?

Someday? “Someday my dream’ll come…”? And one night you’ll wake up and discover it all flipped on you. … And it didn’t happen. And it never will. ‘Cause you were never going to do it, anyway. The dream on the horizon became yesterday and got lost. Then you’ll bullshit yourself, it could never have been, anyway. And you’ll recede it into memory. … In this yellow-and-orange prison. Bit by bit. Every day.

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